Rocket Science: Still Hard

Bad news from the worthwhile sections of this morning's New York Times: another SpaceX rocket blew up.

A privately funded rocket was lost on its way to space Saturday night, bringing a third failure in a row to an Internet multimillionaire's effort to create a market for low-cost space-delivery.

The accident occurred a little more than two minutes after launch, and the two-stage Falcon 1 rocket appeared to be oscillating before the live signal from an on-board video camera went dead.

On the one hand, I hate to see these things blow up. I'm no free-market zealot, but I'm all for cheap space travel, and I'd love to see more launch vehicles available. Particularly given the gross mismanagement of a lot of NASA programs from the executive level.

At the same time, I have to admit to a little schadenfreude here, not for the SpaceX folks, but for the hordes of annoying private space flight evangelists on the Internet and at SF cons. While I agree that there are lots of things NASA does badly, a lot of the expense and risk of launching stuff into space comes from the fact that launching stuff into space is fundamentally a Hard Problem. It's not just government incompetence that can be fixed through the magic of entrepreneurial vigor or whatever.

I hate to see them lose rockets, but I hope that some good comes from it, not only in refining the launch vehicles themselves, but also in forcing some of the more outlandish claims of the private space enthusiasts back to reality.

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Last November, in Florida, I had the opportunity to see my first Space Shuttle launch. For the hundreds of millions of people who don't pay more than a passing notice to the fact that human beings still go into space on a regular basis, this is a fairly banal thing. But to those who camp out all…

"You just love busting out the big German words, don't you?"
What a language could do without a word for 'Schadenfreude'? It is an essential part of most developed cultures, not just the German one.

The rocket tragedy is not NASA, ESA, Roskosmos, or private efforts. The tragedy is death by geezerhood of the only folks who could design a working heavy lifter from the ground up - the boys from Peenemünde. Contemporary efforts fit SUV chassis onto superannuated car frames (zeitgeist re genius seculi). Lookit 'er shine! Why does the foam keep spalling off?

There's no bound fibers in the matrix, idiots. Whoever marries the zeitgeist will soon be a widower.

From the worthwhile section of the New York Times? I didn't see anything about that in the crossword puzzle today.

Whenever you hear "NASA has lost its edge, we need gutsy Skunk-Works-style pioneers"... remember that in the 1950s, the engineers tasked with getting us from V2s and Vikings and Aerobees to functioning ICBMs were precisely that kind.

And they were the ones who came up with systems engineering, obsessive change attention to change management, fault tree analysis, PERT, and all the rest of the "bureaucratic paperwork" that private space enthusiasts love to hate... not because they loved it, but because they couldn't get reliable results without it. Because, as you say, it really is a Hard problem.

Settle back, everybody, while the "let's just bend some metal and GO" crowd re-invents the wheel.

By Monte Davis (not verified) on 04 Aug 2008 #permalink

I used to work for NASA as an engineer and was involved in both the Shuttle and the ISS to some extent so I can give you what I perceived to be the problem (and still perceive as such - my brother-in-law still works on the Shuttle and, I think, disagrees with me on this). Anyway, the problem was hinted at above by Uncle Al. Today's engineers overengineer things. You need a freakin' CS degree to diagnose and fix most cars these days and that's something we use every day! We got to the Moon in under a decade using vacuum tubes for godssakes. The Russians still fly Soyuz which is little better than a flying a sardine can stuck to the top of a controlled explosion.

The real innovation needs to be in the fueling arena. These commercial ventures are all trying to bite off more than they can chew by rethinking the fueling as well as the capsule - and ultimately spending more time on the capsule. And then they gotta have all these damn bells and whistles that you don't need.

Personally, I think some big investor ought to just buy a bunch of Soyuz capsules and launch vehicles. They should be available in a few years since NASA seems to have forced the Russians to overengineer on the "new" vehicles. Otherwise, I think the only guy with any chance of coming up with something reliable, efficient, and worthwhile is Burt Rutan.

Missed this thread from having been on vacation, but you are definitely right that launching stuff into space is a Hard Problem. My scientific career is based on launching stuff into space and looking at the data it sends back. Out of five space flight hardware projects I have been directly involved in, two suffered launch failures (one suborbital sounding rocket where the solid fuel cracked in extreme-by-interior-Alaska-in-January-standards cold, and the maiden flight of an Ariane rocket where the attitude control software failed). And I work with unmanned stuff; trying to keep a living being alive adds yet another layer of complexity to the whole situation.

Monte is correct about why things are overengineered in the aerospace business. When you are spending large sums of Other People's Money (whether the Other People are taxpayers or stockholders, the effect is the same) to put something or someone into space, and it doesn't work, there will be a Failure Review Board, and you will have to be able to explain how you took every appropriate precaution against the failure.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Aug 2008 #permalink

"launching stuff into space is fundamentally a Hard Problem."

True. Speaking from my experience on Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Space Shuttle, Space Station, and various military applications.

Corollary: "launching people into space (and getting them home alive) is fundamentally a Harder Problem."